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Much ado about evolution

THE DRAMA SURROUNDING the theory of evolution and its place in public schools unfolded 80 years ago with the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial. Now, Missouri’s players take the stage.
Sunday, July 31, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:07 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Rep. Cynthia Davis hurries along the basement corridors, looking for the hearing room where she will defend her bill calling for evolution criticism in Missouri textbooks. She peeks around the door and focuses on the back two rows, where her witnesses fidget while waiting to present their case.

Davis smiles and heads to greet them. All but one in her crowd are members of two home-schooled families who drove as long as nine hours to change public education.

It’s 8:05 a.m. on May 8, one week before the end of the legislative session. Davis completes the handshakes and settles into her seat before the House Committee for Elementary and Secondary Education. She looks straight ahead, confident, as committee members lounge around the room, exchanging pleasantries and refilling their coffees. The chairwoman of the committee, Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis, calls the meeting to order.

“I knew you’d be excited to hear my bill,” Davis begins. “Good things are going on in Missouri education today.”

It’s a cheerful introduction to a case that later will link the lessons Missouri students yawn through in high school biology to the Holocaust.

Eager to present her witnesses, Davis gets to it.

“My bill is only three sentences,’’ she says. “It says that all biology textbooks sold to the public schools of the state of Missouri shall have one or more chapters containing a critical analysis of origins. The chapters shall convey the distinction between data and testable theories of science and philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy, such as biological evolution, the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.”

Davis asks the committee to grant students academic freedom by delivering the best materials to future scientific Missourians, like the books they have in Ohio and Texas and Minnesota. They’re excellent textbooks, she says, that don’t treat evolution as dogma but examine it critically and introduce students to the controversy over origins.

Davis says she has never seen these textbooks, but she has heard that other states have these chapters in their books. They don’t. Some school districts in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania show students a supplemental text called “Of Pandas and People,” an evolutionary critique, but they don’t mandate its use.

At the time they crafted their bill, neither Davis nor co-sponsor Rep. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, knew who was responsible for monitoring textbook content in Missouri, although Davis imagined that the State Board of Education had some review process. It doesn’t. The last year the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education compiled a list of publishers selling to Missouri was in 1993. Instead, school districts negotiate sales directly with textbook publishers.

Davis knows that now but says it’s not an obstacle. She’s confident that if her bill passes, local book buyers would strive to comply with the new state mandate, even if there were no penalty for noncompliance.

“It doesn’t look good for a school district to skirt state law,” she says.

Davis acknowledges that her books might not exist. In fact, they don’t, say her advisers, creationists and proponents of the theory of intelligent design. But she envisions textbook publishers fighting for the opportunity to sell to Missouri and rushing to create these materials if her bill becomes law.

Her critics say the entire thing is a stretch and believe the legislation was born from a different motive than wanting to keep Missouri on pace with the latest in scientific discovery, as the representative says.

To Davis, evolution means “we all come from pond scum.”

“It’s saying that human life came from nothing, and that makes no sense to reasonable people,” Davis says.

Science refers to evolution, sometimes called microevolution, as inheritable changes within a population over generations. Evolutionary theory, or macroevolution, says that all life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor and that the processes propelling the diversification of living organisms are gene mutation, which creates variety, and natural selection, which filters it.

The theory of evolution makes no claims about the origin of life, although much of evolutionary criticism, including Davis’ bill, tackles the two in the same breath.

Sitting before the committee, Davis abstains from making scientific claims. Instead she turns the floor over to Ann Ihms, a chemistry teacher from Indiana, who gasps through her testimony without pause.

“Columbine. Despair. There’s trauma, there’s panic, there’s depression among our young people at levels that have never been before,” Ihms says. “And part of that is the evolutionary teaching.”

A few committee members fidget in the chairs. The evolutionists who have come to testify put palms to foreheads as Ihms continues.

“There are some reasons that evolution does lead to the conclusion that some human beings cleanse the gene pool — Hitler’s ideas — which is an evolutionary idea.”

Echoing themes from the Discovery Institute, the politically conservative think tank that poured its experts into the Kansas hearings this spring to challenge evolution, Ihms borrows from a connection proposed by Institute senior fellow Richard Weikart in his new book “From Darwin to Hitler.” In it, Weikart expands the Darwinian idea of natural selection to eugenics and racism.

Ihms says that evolution breeds disregard for human life, that it taught the Columbine perpetrators that some people deserve to live, that some don’t and that they could decide.

As the hearing room stirs with whispers, Davis remains still and smiling. She is no stranger to contentious analogies, cementing her national profile by comparing liberals to the Sept. 11 hijackers and announcing in April that hospital childbirth amounts to rape.

This time, she leaves the metaphors to her witnesses, calling former teacher Mark Renaud of Perryville to the stand. Renaud presents as evidence before the committee his 7-year-old son, Nathaniel Paul.

“Students in the state of Missouri are told that this thing started with a single cell and, slowly, over a couple million years it was two cells,’’ Renaud says. “And after a few million more years, he developed fins and began swimming, then later developed wings and flew, then started eating bananas and swinging from trees in Africa. And finally, about seven years ago, he popped up in my wife’s belly and became this little boy.”

Instead, Renaud advocates the theory of intelligent design.

On the frontlines of the design movement is a group of richly decorated Ph.D.s at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. On its Web site, the institute gives this definition: “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”

In 1991, Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson released the intelligent design manifesto “Darwin on Trial,” in which he laid out a strategy for the design movement called the “wedge.” The plan is to “teach the controversy” in schools, grow a popular base disillusioned with evolution and establish intelligent design as the foremost scientific theory. Johnson and his colleagues at the Discovery Institute expect a majority of mainstream scientists will espouse this design theory by 2020.

Intelligent design advocates approach their cause as a grass-roots social movement in which regular people dissatisfied with evolutionary theory march to their school boards and legislatures to demand the alternative. Spreading the message to the public takes hours of daily blogging, newspaper editorials, television appearances and a traveling show: debates and seminars around the country.

Eighty years ago, when the Scopes “Monkey” Trial cemented evolution as a controversial subject, creationism was its only foe. Split between the New Earth creationists, who replace modern science with a literal reading of Genesis, and Old Earth creationists, who allow more biblical wiggle room but still cite the Judeo-Christian God as life’s main conductor, the movement made some gains in state legislatures during the 20th century.

But a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision ultimately sealed it out of the classroom, finding creationist teachings in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. The science community never entertained creationism in the lab.

Evolutionists overwhelmingly believe intelligent design picks up where creation science ends in search of greater popular and legal acceptance. Looking westward at Kansas’ recent evolution battle, its success is evident.

Davis next calls to the stand Mark Renaud’s son Benjamin Renaud, 18, an articulate, nervous young man who reads his concerns from a handwritten statement.

Renaud accuses evolution of violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics by producing complexity from disorder.

This popular creationist argument misinterprets the physical law of entropy, which says that without interference, energy tends to spread from more concentrated areas. This principle does not apply to matter — only energy — nor to Earth, an open system with much environmental interference, and therefore does not conflict with biological evolution.

But the idea strikes a chord with committee member Scott Muschany, R-St. Louis, who begins prodding evolution defender Robert Boldt about his case against the House bill.

“The theory of evolution has stood the test of time,” says Boldt, a freelance video producer from Jefferson City who says that real scientists long ago stopped scratching their heads over evolution. “It comes as close as any theory in the life sciences can to being an absolute law.”

“It struck me as odd, ” Muschany observes, “given where we are and what we’re talking about, when you said there is no controversy.”

“The controversy is definitely a social controversy,” Boldt says.

“Well, what other kinds of controversies are there?” wonders the politician.

Scientific ones, Boldt says: “One might as well call the theory of gravity controversial as to question the theory of evolution.”

“Are you aware of any scientific laws or natural laws that contradict the theory of gravity?” Muschany asks. “However, there are some natural laws — we’ve heard testimony today — that would be in conflict with evolution.”

Accuracy is often the first casualty when politics forces science into a rhetorical format. That’s why many evolutionists refuse to debate creationists and proponents of intelligent design.

“Debate is sport; you are judged not by accuracy but by performance,” says Eugenie Scott, executive director for the National Center for Science Education, a pro-evolution activist group in Oakland, Calif.

“Right now, we’re fighting a defensive war; we are the status quo,” Scott says, and “any scientists willing to get up on stage and pretend that this is really a theory in crisis…”

Scott trails off, indignant.

“It’s incoherent.”

The National Center for Science Education maintains an electronic network of allies across the country: scientists, politicians and clergy who support evolution and agree to disseminate its message locally.

The day before Davis’ hearing, the organization sent an e-mail to its Missouri base, lamenting the short notice — Cunningham scheduled the hearing just one day in advance — and asking any available recipients to speak against the bill.

Jan Weaver, director of environmental sciences at MU and an e-mail recipient, approaches the bench.

She begins with her frustrations about how anti-evolutionists mangle scientific concepts such as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But by this point, the memorable highlights of this hearing are cemented: Evolution leads to Columbine.

In fact, nearly half the committee has left.

Sound bites are more prominent in this debate than anything inside a science text. Weaver isn’t punchy like Ann Ihms, or like William Harris, an intelligent design advocate she debated in March at MU’s Life Sciences Center.

Harris was utterly quotable. His “from goo to you via the zoo,” summary of evolution competed with Weaver’s technical explanation during their debate. Dozens of slides defending the fossil record and natural selection flashed before the audience as Weaver softly intoned her message, but Harris got more bang with his insinuation that kids are being infused with an atheistic premise.

The hearing is nearly over as Becky Litherland takes her seat in front of the committee. She is past president of the Science Teachers of Missouri and speaks on behalf of the organization that sent a legislative alert opposing Davis’ bill to all its members earlier this year.

“There are many topics in science that may generate controversy, yet only evolution is pulled out,” Litherland tells the committee.

A former science coordinator for Columbia Public Schools, Litherland fought against last year’s House bill sponsored by Rep. Robert Wayne Cooper, R-Camdenton. It mandated that intelligent design be taught on par with evolution and that failure to do so be grounds for firing. The bill was opposed in writing by 450 Missouri science professionals and died in committee. It is said to have been abandoned by Cooper, who had grown disappointed with its clumsy language and heavy demands.

Davis and Emery co-sponsored the previously failed legislation. They have switched gears for the current bill, Davis says, to avoid having to convince teachers of what they should and should not teach.

“It is not my goal to micromanage what’s going on in the classroom,” she says. “There’s no requirement to teach the whole textbook.”

Davis lifted her bill’s language from an amendment written by intelligent design guru Phillip Johnson for U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., for incorporation into the No Child Left Behind Act. While ultimately deleted from the 2002 version signed by into law by President Bush, the language appears in the conference committee report and is claimed by anti-evolutionists as a legal mandate to teach other theories.

When Rep. Cunningham declares the hearing closed, there are too few representatives left for a vote. As predicted, the bill dies in committee. But Davis walks out smiling.

“This is a movement; this is not going to go away,” she says, grateful for the time she has been given to introduce the controversy.

Earlier this year, Davis met with Kansas attorney John Calvert, an intelligent design force behind the Kansas science standards hearings, to ask him to support her bill. When Calvert advised the representative to go after curriculum requirements, Davis was shy of such a conspicuous overhaul, and she remains so. She likes her bill and will probably try to reintroduce a version of it next year.

Davis, who says she learned about evolution in her high school social studies class, said she thinks the theory asks too much of nature.

“How could this world have come to be without intervention?” she says. “If you only look at the world, it is mathematically and statistically impossible that we got here by chance.

“But it is far beyond me to go into science.”


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